The Roman Collegia

The Roman Collegia

BY Bro. H. L. Haywood

The origin of Modern Freemasonry has been traced by means of documents and other historical records to guilds of builders in the Middle Ages. These guilds in turn were derived from yet earlier forms of organized endeavour (as has already been noted in the chapter on the Cathedral Builders) therefore Masonic historians have found it necessary to try to push their way back behind them in an attempt to learn how they came into existence. Nearly all these historians have fastened their attention on the Roman c ollegia (plural form of collegium) as furnishing the most probable ancestry for the guilds from which Freemasonry sprang, therefore it is necessary for a Masonic student to know something about those societies of ancient Rome.

A collegium was an association of persons, never less than three, for some chosen object, usually of a trade, social, or religious character, organized according to law. It had its own regulations and usually its own meeting place. In the majority of cases these collegia were dealt with by law as having what is known in lawyer parlance as “a legal personality,” that is to say, they could own property and they could be held accountable through their officials for their acts. The collegiate organizations r eached their perfection and became most popular in Rome, therefore they are generally known as Roman collegia, but they were also popular in many other countries as well.



The great majority of Greek Collegia were organized about the worship of some god or hero. Religion was a public activity controlled by the state and consequently was formal in its character; many men and women, feeling the need for something more emotional, organized themselves into cults for the private worship of their favourite gods, and these organizations were often collegiate in form. It is believed that the famous Orphic mysteries, so often described by Masonic writers, were begun in this manner. Collegia of worshippers of Bacchus existed in the second century; there is a record of such a collegium dated 186 B.C. These and other Greek collegia were called by various names, thiassoi, hetairai, etc.

Political activity among the Greeks sometimes assumed the collegiate form, especially among the lower classes and among colonies of resident aliens, the latter of whom usually settled at or near some seaport. There were political collegia at Athens in the time of Pericles, and they caused much trouble. In 413 B.C. a group of them conspired to overthrow the democratic government. Such Greek associations, however, were not very numerous or powerful, and never reached anything like the state of development as that attained in Rome.

Collegia became more or less common in Egypt in the first century B.C., especially among the worshippers of Isis. Apuleius mentions one such organization under date of 79 B.C., and there is reason to believe that they had existed much earlier. In many cases they took the form of burial clubs, about which more anon. Records of the existence of such associations in the famous region of the Fayum have been found, bearing date of 67 B.C. In Asia Minor, also, traces of collegia have been unearthed, and it is believed that Thyatira had a larger number than any other city in Asia; its college of smiths became known throughout the world.



Among the Romans collegiate associations were so old that legend attributed their founding to Numa, the second of the traditional Roman kings, and there is a mention of collegia in the Twelve Tables. These organizations flourished unhampered until after the beginning of the first century B.C., during which time some opposition began to develop among Roman law makers. In 64 B.C. they were forbidden for a while, with the exception of a few of a religious character, but in 58 a Clodian law once again permitt ed them. This law was set aside only two years afterwards. Julius Caesar in his turn forbade them all, except Jewish associations of worship, on the ground that they dabbled too much in politics. When Augustus became emperor he espoused the cause of the collegia and caused to be adopted an imperial statute that came to stand as the foundation of all jurisprudence having to do with them and with similar organizations. The Emperor Marcus Aure lius was the greatest friend the collegia ever had.

Except for these general statutes the collegia were left very much to themselves until Nero became emperor, when he caused to be adopted a series of regulations controlling the associations in Italian towns. These regulations were extended to include provincial towns by Trajan, and from his regime until the end one emperor after another assumed such increasing control of the collegia that there came a time when they were merely cogs in the great machinery of state. Membership was made hereditary; transfer o f a man from one collegium to another was forbidden; and freedom to work or not to work was everywhere denied. Industry became in effect a state controlled monopoly, and workmen were as restricted as soldiers in an army. The imperial system in its last centuries was supported by the power it extorted from the collegia, so that the organizations of trades, the organizations of politics, and the organizations of military forces became three great pillars underneath the empire.

In spite of the great mass of regulations and restrictive laws, and of the severe penalties hedging them all about, a great many collegia came into existence under conditions and for purposes that violated the statutes. These were known as collegia illicits, and gave the officials just such trouble as bootleggers give nowadays. Some of these unlawful associations were of a religious character, others were hatching places for political intrigues. When apprehended they were severely dealt with through the person of their president, who was compelled to pay a heavy fine or else go to jail.

It is amazing to discover how many collegia there were. More than twenty-five hundred inscriptions are in existence, and these have emanated from some four hundred and seventy-five towns and villages of the empire. In the city of Rome itself more than eighty different trades were organized, and it is believed that if the memorials were more complete the number would be considerably increased. It is a great misfortune that we are so dependent on inscriptions and similar records, because time has not dealt kindly with such things, but this is the case and because the classic writers almost always scorned to speak of them owing to their plebeian character. Like our own literary historians the old Latin writers loved to tell about lords and ladies and other notables, their fortunes, their intrigues, and their wars: the numberless masses of common folk lay outside their range of vision. An attempt to discover what the historians of the Roman Empire have had to say about the collegia will bring this home to a man; in all the histories that I was able to consult I did not find any reference worth reading except in one or two of the thick volumes of Duruy, the Frenchman. Gibbon raises his eyebrows; Ferrers has nothing to say; Mommsen forgets all about it, though in 1870 he published a tome in Latin on the matter, which, so far as one may discover, has never been translated into English; and so it goes. One is driven back on the archaeologists.

A great many collegia were organized solely for the purpose of guaranteeing a member a decent sepulture; they were known as teuinorum collegia, or burial clubs. Each club of this kind built or leased a hall, and held regular meetings upon which occasions poems were read about the deceased, or a feast was held to commemorate a brother on his birthday anniversary. Each of these pathetic little societies owned, or had access to, a columbarium. A columbarium, God save the mark, was a kind of nickname, and me ant literally dovecote, which was a name suggested by the fact that it so much resembled the little buildings in which aristocrats housed their doves. In a dark room, half underground, were galleries of niches, each large enough to contain an urn; every member of the collegium was entitled to his niche and his urn, and there were provisions for a vase of flowers, perhaps, or even an inscription.

Death was a thing of horror to the Roman, especially if he had the misfortune to be poor, because his creeds taught him that a man illy buried would turn out an unhappy ghost, or even would wander unhoused about the winds, a forlorn and shivering spirit in an agony of loneliness. Accordingly, every man strained his resources to see to it that his own soul was protected against such a fate. The rich could build their own monuments – every Roman highway of any importance was lined by such things – but the s laves and the poor were hard put to stave off neglect after death. They resorted to the expedient of pooling their resources, and the burial club was the result.

It is impossible for us moderns to realize how much such a thing meant to a Roman with little or no means. The public custom of disposing of the uncared for dead was repellent beyond description. Great pits were kept half open near the centers of population and into these, without any ceremony, the corpses of the poor were dumped. To escape such a horror a man was willing to make almost any sacrifice.

Owing to this feeling about burial the Romans were always patient with any attempt at securing decorous funeral lites, therefore the collegia having such matters in charge were dealt with patiently and often with lenience. It is supposed by such authorities as Sir William Ramsey that many of the early Christian churches were first organized as burial clubs in order to escape the wrath of the officials, especially when all private religious associations were under the ban, as happened several times. It is believed by some that the early church was often persecuted, not because of the theological doctrines it taught, but because officialdom deemed associations of private persons a menace to the state.

The great majority of collegia came into existence for more mundane purposes. Almost every profession, art, and trade had its own organization made in due form, and according to imperial statute. Sometimes the division of function among these crafts was carried to an extreme as when the garbage collectors had their own collegium, the slipper makers theirs, the vendors of fish theirs, the wig makers theirs, etc. The oldest known inscription refers to a collegium of cooks, 200 B.C. It has been alleged by m any Masonic writers that collegia of masons, or builders and architects, occupied a distinctive place and enjoyed special honours and privileges. It is true that Cicero remarks of the honourableness of architecture, and that a few other of the Latins mention that calling as having a peculiar usefulness, but other than this I have never been able to discover any grounds for the assertions so freely made by our own historians, though I have searched wit h loving care, seeing that I have wished to find such ev idence.

There were no collegia in Roman Africa, and there were not many in the Eastern Empire, but elsewhere they were thickly scattered through Roman civilization. Every regiment of soldiers carried with it its own collegia of engineers, carpenters, and such craftsmen, and, as Coote remarks, “it was as easy to imagine a Roman without a city as to conceive his existence without collegia.”



Each collegium aspired to control or own a hall or meeting place, which it called schola, or in some cases, curia. For officials it had a kind of president called by different names, magistri, curitarious, quinquennales, perfecti praesides, and so on. Decuriones were a kind of warden, and there were factors or quaestors to manage the business affairs. Each society had its own laws, called lex college, and its house rules or by-laws, and these regulations were based, as already explained, on the imperial statutes. Fees and dues went into a common chest, called the arca. It has been alleged by some writers that the funds thus accumulated were used for charitable purposes but the best informed archaeologists dissent from this opinion, and say that the income was employed to defray necessary expenses for the upkeep of headquarters, and for memorial banquets. Oftentimes some well-to-do member or friend left behind a legacy, usually with the directi on that it be used for memorial banquets, but sometimes for th e benefits of the membership as a whole. Most collegia besought the graces of a patron, often a woman, who, in return for signal honours, helped defray the expenses of the little group. It is supposed by a few chroniclers that these patrons, who often belonged to the upper classes, were more or less useful in controlling the activities of the collegia in the interests of the established order.

The social system of Rome, with its semi-caste form, was reflected inside the collegium where the differences of rank were anxiously observed, and the member from some noble house always received special honours. Slaves were often admitted, if they came with the consent of their masters, and there were many freedmen, who were in many cases wealthy men. For the most part, the technical organization of the body, with its officials, its ranks, and its parish outlines, was modelled on the lay-out of the typic al Roman city which was to a Roman the ne plus ultra of political organization.



To the student of the evolution of Freemasonry from its first crude traces until its present state of affluence and power, the story of the collegia is of considerable importance. The enthusiastic notion that those ancient associations were Masonic lodges in the literal sense, and that through them our Fraternity as it now exists can trace its history back to 1000 B.C. or beyond, must be abandoned except in a sense so broad as almost to rob the idea of any meaning at all. Nevertheless the collegiate organ ization may justly be considered as one item in a long chain of general as sociational development, the last link of which is our modern Fraternity.

There are three or four theories which hold that one may trace a certain tenuous continuity between the Roman collegia and modern Freemasonry.

One of these is the Dionysiac Artificers theory. This hypothesis was given the shape with which we are now familiar by Hyppolito Joseph Da Costa in his Sketch for the History of the Dionysian Artificers (published complete in instalment form in The Montana Mason beginning with November, 1921), and he was followed, and his arguments repeated, by The History of Freemasonry, drawn from authentic source of information; with an account of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, from its Institution in 1736 to the present time, compiled from the Records; and an Appendix of Original Papers, a famous old volume long attributed to Alexander Lawrie but now generally believed to have been written by Sir David Brewster. The essence of this theory is that these Artificers were employed – lodges of them, that is – in the building of King Solomon’s Temple, and that they preserved the secrets of architecture until at last they transmitted them to such of the Roman collegia as p ractised that art.

At this juncture the equally well known Comacine theory comes in. According to this reading of the matter, as we may learn from Cathedral Builders, by “Leader Scott,” and from Brother Ravenscroft’s codicils to the same in his Comacines – Their Predecessors and Their Successors, a few of the Roman builders’ collegia (collegia fabrorum) took refuge from the Barbarian invasions on or near Lake Como in Northern Italy and there kept alive a knowledge of building until such time as conditions had stabilized them selves and Europe had become ready for another civilization. When the barbarian peoples began to build their own cities and to lay out their highways these Comacini, so the theory has it, went here and there to teach the people the arts of building. They established schools, and acted as missionaries in general throughout the various countries of Europe, England included, all of which will be described in more adequate manner in a chapter to come.

The third of the theories that would connect the collegia with early Masonic guilds is that which Gould elaborates at some length in the first volume of his History, but without committing himself one way or the other. According to this theory, collegia entered Britain with the Roman army of conquest and were responsible for the cities, highways, dikes and churches, some remains of which are still in existence. When the Angles, Saxons and Danes made an end of the Roman civilization in the islands, the coll egia continued to exist among them in a somewhat changed form, known as guilds. Among these guilds were those devoted to building and its allied arts, and out of these guilds there emerged in time those organizations of Masons who gave us Freemasonry. Some of the greatest historians in the world deny all this in toto – Freeman among them – while others accept it. A layman must make up his mind to suit himself.

Still another theory is that which connects the medieval guilds of Europe with the collegia that lingered late in and about Constantinople, or, as it was called, Byzantium. It is supposed that as these organizations of Byzantine builders came more and more into demand they moved gradually across Italy and on up into central Europe where they served as the seed out of which came the Teutonic guilds. According to the theory, it was from these Teutonic guilds that the Masonic guilds of England came, and it w as out of the English guilds that Freemasonry emerged.

Until such time as more evidence is forthcoming these, and other theories that could be described if space permitted, will all hang more or less in the air. For my own part I do not accept any of them as proved. None of them have a sufficient bottom of known facts. It appears to me that we should hold judgment in suspense.

Nevertheless and in spite of this uncertainty, the collegia will ever continue to be of importance to us Masons because they give us one of the best examples in the world of how and why it is that such a thing as Freemasonry grows up out of human nature. In the days of the Roman Empire life became hard and it grew complex, so that the individual found himself helpless to battle the world alone. He discovered that if he would combine his own puny individual forces with the resources of his neighbours and f riends that what he alone could not do he might do through cooperation. Through pooling their money, their knowledge, their influence, and their good will the dim multitudes of common people learned to hold their own in a great hard world.

It is so today. The lodge is a means whereby the solitary individual may escape from his helplessness by linking his own life onto the lives of his fellows. In its utmost essence that is what Freemasonry does. It goes down into the depths of a man’s nature until it finds what is most permanent and universal in him and links that onto the inmost nature of many others. Held together by such a Mystic Tie brethren work and live together and they who might in our large centers lead lonely lives as strangers or even as enemies are able to rescue from the welter of modern life the sweet amenities of friendship, brotherly love, relief, mutual tolerance, and kindliness. What the collegium was to the men of ancient Rome, the Masonic lodge is to men of today.



Livy, Metamorphosis, XI, 30. Kennedy, St. Paul and the Mystery Religions, 72, etc. Poland, History of the Greeks. Waltzing, Historical Studies of the Professional Corporations of the Romans. Pauly, Realencyclopadie, article by Kornemann on Collegium. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, vol. V, 132. A Companion to Latin Studies, see. 202. Find complete Latin bibliography in sec. 563. Hasting, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. VI, 218. Hatch, The Organization of Early Christian Churches. Encyclop edia Britannica, eleventh edition, vol VI, 564. Mommsen, De Collegiis et Sodalitiis Romanorum Kiliae, 1870. Grote, History of Greece, vol. V, Greenidge, Handbook of Greek Constitutional History, 208 ff. Davis, The Influence of Wealth in Imperial Rome, section on Gilds. Pliny, Epistle X, 97, 98. Abbott, The Common People of Ancient Rome, 205. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, XI, 5047; V, 7906; Ill, 953; VIII, 14683; III, 3583; XIV, 2112; XIV, 3 26. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners, I, 146. Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, ch. beginning p. 270. Barnes, Early Church in the Light of the Monuments, 53. De Rossi, Roma Soterranea, 58. Bulletino di Arch. Crist. Ramsey, The Church in the Roman Empire, 213. Hatch, Bampton Lectures, 152. Le Blant, Actes, 282. Dill, Roman Life From Nero to Marcus Aurelius. Plutarch, Numa. Duruy, History of Rome, several chapters; consult index. Cobern, The New Archaeological Discoveries and the N ew Testament. Pelham, Essays on Roman History, 701 ff. A rs Quatuor Coronatorum, XI, 170. Scott, The Cathedral Builders, book II, eh. 3. Clegg, Mackey’s History of Freemasonry, ch. 46 ff. Gould, The History of Freemasonry, vol. I, 36. See bibliographical notes in entire chapter. Coote, The Romans of Britain. Fort, Early History and Antiquities of Masonry. Hope, Historical Essay on Architecture. Newton, The Builders, part I, ch 5. Armitage, A Short Masonic History, vol I ch 7. Gould, The Concise History of Freemasonry, (Crowe’s Revision), 10. Ward, Freemaso nry and the Ancient Gods, part 1, ch. 17. Spence, Encyclopedia of Occultism, article on Freemasonry. Corpus Juris Civilis, Dig. XLVII, 22. Brown, From Schola to Cathedral.

Mackey’s Encyclopedia – (Revised Edition):

Ancient Mysteries, 497; Builder, 123; Collegium, 158. Comacine Masters, 161; Egyptian Mysteries, 232; Freemasons of the Church, 150; Gilds, 296; Initiations of the Egyptian Priests, 234; Isis, 358; Mysteries of Osiris, 540; Oath of the Gild, 524; Orphic Mysteries, 539; Osiris, 540; Roman Colleges of Artificers, 630; Stone-Masons of the Middle Ages, 718.


Vol. III, 1917. – Masonic History – Suggestions for Research, p.204; The Cathedral Builders, p. 380.

Vol. IV, 1918. – The Comacines, p. 63. Vol. VI, 1920. – A Bird’s-Eye View of Masonic History, 236

Vol. VII, 1921. – Whence Came Freemasonry, p. 90.

Vol. VIII, 1922. – A Mediating Theory, p. 318.

– Source: The Builder – June 1923